Posts tagged "politics"

Re: Shame

(also posted at PoliticsRespun.org)

I have an old stand-by joke for partisan political events that I happen upon or at which I end up.  How can you tell an NDP event?

The cries of “Shame! Shame!”

There are a few tropes we can pile together about political rallies.  Conservative ones seem to have hired goons at the door and only admitted the evangelical supporters, forceably ejecting (sometimes by means of the RCMP) anyone who doesn’t agree.  Liberal ones have people in suits, well-dressed, career type people, out for a day of cheering for whoever will get them a job in the Natural Governing Party.  And yet the NDP is the one that sometimes feels like a ‘born-again’ church ceremony, with the mutually expected choruses of “Shame!”

(I went to the NDP’s platform launch in Toronto: Jack Layton, energetic and Lenin-Lookalike as always, even taught us to yell it en Français: “Honteuse!” Also, I suppose: “Honteux!”)

Alex has recently written about the superhero narrative in popular fiction.  In her piece, she talks about the feelings of worthlessness that this narrative can instil, at how disempowering that it can be — unless you happen to be the superhero.  She instead suggests we need a different narrative, one of collective hope, collective action… perhaps a more democratic narrative.

So why is it that the NDP sticks to this “Shame!” trope?

There’s a specific narrative at use.  The other guys did something SHAMEFUL. (“Shame! Shame! Honteux!“) And the NDP won’t be as SHAMEFUL. (“Yay!”)

It’s an oddly patriarchal narrative, and the discourse dynamics of what does on is, in my mind, nerve-grinding.  The party sets up the scenario.  The party identifies the shameful situation. The party expects the faithful to yell “Shame! Shame!” and maybe “Honteux!

It’s basically a 3 step process: 1. Shameful situation is exposed. 2. “Shame! Honteux!” 3. The NDP will do the opposite.

One, the use of the word “shame!” really strikes me as outdated. It’s not what we’d say today.  Admittedly, they can’t yell out what I’d be thinking (“That’s fucked!” maybe “C’est fucké!“), but “shame!” strikes my as what my lovely grandmother would yell at the TV.  Actually, no, she’d be slightly more forceful.  The groupthink feeling is slightly creepy – when you’re at the event, you’re expected to cheer along.

And the discourse is disempowering.  The role of the public is to chant “shame!” when the politicians present the proper incentive.  Not much else.  Actually, I think it’s similar to Alex’s superhero narrative – here, the NDP is the superhero, the evil-doing has been presented, and the NDP will be off to fix the problem!

Other rallies – by all parties – have the same problem.  A political issue is presented that must be changed.  Who’s going to change it? The party and the politicians!  I was at an NDP rally about the HST in Vancouver, and the speakers said something along the lines of “You tell us what you think needs to be done, and we’re gonna do it for you!” Of course, there was ample amounts of “Shame!” built in.  The same thing just happened at the BC NDP convention when Adrian Dix won the leadership of the BC NDP – the BC Liberals are full of “Shame!” and the NDP are not.

There isn’t much discussion of why the NDP aren’t as shameful – just that the BC Liberals/Conservatives/Evil Reptilian Kitten Eaters from Another Planet are full of shame!

But what can be done?

We need to think of a different way of organizing ourselves politically.  Parties  – and the stupid political system (FPTP) that we’re currently stuck with, because of parties – are constructs that are designed to win mass and vague support from large amounts of people.  They’re supposed to channel political action through the parties, limiting the role of people – like you and me – to simply assigning our support to the party that is the least offensive, in the hopes of avoiding the most offensive from taking total control.

We need to work on this. A better world is needed. And I don’t think simply yelling “Shame! Honteux!” at the people whom we hope won’t be as bad is the best way we can do it.  We need a more democratic narrative, where we’re not reduced to yelling “shame!” at things we don’t like but actively working towards the things that we do like.  Like Alex says, we need a political reality and discourse where “[w]e can define our own lives and tell our own stories, because we don’t need no superheros.”

Or to simply shout “Shame!”

That we must, for now, is…

…a shame.

There are times I can’t believe I study politics.

– Also posted at PoliticsRespun.org

I’m a graduate student in political science at York University.

And there are times – increasingly more times – that I can’t believe that I study politics.

And I’d like to suggest that this is precisely what Stephen Harper wants.

Personally, I think that it’s kind of telling that someone like me – a student who has, thus far, dedicated six years and more than thirty thousand dollars to actuallystudying politics – might be getting tired of what I used to find so interesting, and what I might have, at one time, been passionate about.

After all, if someone like me, who was so dedicated to studying politics, might tire of it, then what of everyone else in the country? Everyone out there who hasn’t spent countless hours and dollars studying politics, understanding the vagaries of political systems, wondering what votes might mean?

But, again, I’d like to suggest that this is what Stephen Harper wants.  He wants everyone to tire of politics.  And he’s well on his way to doing this.

Using a description written by Javier Auyero, when he was studying oligarchic and undemocratic practices in South America, Stephen Harper probably wants us to think of “politics [as] an activity alien to” the people.  Harper probably wants us to exist in a scenario where politics “is defined as an action that is foreign to everyday life.”

And in such a situation, Harper wants the Conservative Party to appear beyond politics. He wants you to think of the Conservative Party as an apolitical, beneficient organization, that does good in the world.  And that politics is alien, apart, separate from this.

Why would Harper, a politician of all things, want this?

Because politics has become something alien to all of us.  And engaging in politics is then something foreign to us.  So we won’t engage in politics.  But thankfully, the Conservative Party will be there for us, if we need anything… because that’s not political.

In short, Harper is trying to construe politics – the very processes by which we, as a democratic society, ought to have broad discussions on our priorities and how we might live together – as something that we shouldn’t ever want to get involved in, so that he and his Conservative Party have all the control, all the power, and can do whatever they want.

And when I see this happening, I can’t believe that I actually study politics.

Over the past week and a bit, a number of ridiculous political events have taken place that serve to undermine the concept of the political in Canadian discourses.

(continued after the break!)

First, there was a bit of a kerfuffle over the Minister for International Cooperation,Bev Oda, and whether or not she after-the-fact modified a document, inserting the word “not” into a document that ostensibly approved funding to KAIROS, a faith-based NGO that works in the developing world.

There was a set of really stupid parliamentary debates about this memo and this seemingly crayon-scrawled “NOT” that changed the entire memo from supporting the funding, to well… NOT.  First, Oda claimed at a committee that CIDA – the International Development Agency – recommended not funding KAIROS.  Then, when the memo was released, she claimed that she had no idea who had inserted the “NOT.”  Then, she apologized to parliament for any confusion – turns out, she had directed that the “NOT” be inserted. Sorry for misunderstanding.

In my opinion, Oda misled the House of Commons twice – first, by implying that it was CIDA that didn’t want the funding. Then, by claiming that she had no idea who had inserted the not.  Actually, that last excuse might well have been the truth – I can see Harper ordering the funding not go ahead, and then Oda and her staff scrambling to cover up the fact that they were retroactively withdrawing the funding.

Next, Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney screwed up intensely when his office accidentally sent NDP MP Linda Duncan – instead of Conservative MP John Duncan – a package of information detailing the Conservative’s “ethnic paid media strategy.”

There are any number of problems with this:

  1. It’s highly unethical – and I believe illegal – to use House of Commons, Ministry, or Government resources for partisan purposes.  Yet here we have some poor staffer being “instructed” to send out information packages on “very ethnic ridings” soliciting $200,000 from riding associations for a Conservative Party ad campaign. Said poor staffer got thrown under the bus as Jason Kenney took full responsibility and fired the staff member.
  2. It’s offensive to see the Conservative Party — or any other party — explicitly targeting “very ethnic” ridings.
  3. Where did the Conservative Party get the data on the ridings? They have some detailed stuff – I’m willing to wager it came from the long-form census — which the Conservative Party also cut. How entertaining.  Did they pay the HUGE costs associated with getting the data from StatsCan?

Sigh.

Then, last week, various Conservative Party executives, including Senator Doug Finley, were charged with breaking the Elections Act regarding the “in and out” scheme that the Conservatives engaged in in the 2006 election.

For those of you whose eyes glaze over at the mention of this – here’s how it works: the Conservative Party hit their spending limit in the election, a limit which they are not allowed to exceed. To get around it, Elections Canada is alleging that the Conservative Party nationally bought advertising, and faked invoices to local riding associations, so that they could then send the extra money they had to these ridings and cover the costs, making the expense appear local when it was actually national.  To make things better, the local ridings got reimbursed for expenses that they didn’t actually incur.  This strikes me as theft.

To make things better, after admitting that mixing government and partisan work isn’t actually a good thing, it turns out that Jason Kenney has been handing out nifty little Ministerial Awards that feature the Conservative Party logo on them. This is flagrantly stupid, in my opinion.

So… what’s this all about?

Harper and the Conservative Party are trying to do two things at the same time: poison the idea of the political in the minds of Canadians so much that our stomaches turn at the very idea of being involved in anything to do with politics, and position the Conservative Party as the natural place you’d go to when you want something done – without having to get all political about it.

The Conservative Party is in power – they control the government, they can put huge amounts of money into their ridings, vis-a-vis the gazebos in Tony Clement’sriding, the fake lake in Toronto, the Economic Action! Plan money being spend heavily in Conservative ridings… and so on.

They’ve effectively become a cartel party.  Political parties are theoretically groups of people with similar ideas and passions that exist to try and get those ideas and passions put into place.  They are theoretically coordinating bodies, to bring activists together in a common cause.  They’re supposed to be the link between civil society and the state — and that “link” is supposed to be politics.

Instead, here we have the Conservative Party colonizing the state.  They are the state.  This is why the name change, from the Government of Canada to the Harper Government is so telling.  To Stephen Harper, the French King’s pronouncement is so very true: “l’etat, c’est moi.”

After they’ve colonized the state, the Conservative Party is working hard to destroy the distinction between them as a party and them as a government.  It’s something the Liberals succeeded in doing – it’s why we called them the Natural Governing Party.  It’s something the NDP would revel in doing.  But it’s not something I think any party ought to do.

And that “linking” role that was so important, once upon a time, that parties played – articulating their members and public demands into government practice and policy – is politics.  And that’s quickly becoming something foreign and alien – and dirty.

So at the end of the day, politics is something that no one in their right mind wants to do. It’s dirty work. It’s alien to everyday life.

So we’ll just leave the politicians to it.  And when we need something, we’ll look no further than the Conservative Party.

And when a student in political science, of all people, is getting tired of politics, it shows that it’s working.

So what do we do?

We need to take back politics and the political.  We need to rethink how we collectively work together.  The concept of a party as being a vehicle to seize state power so that we have… well, power… is something that has brought us here.

We need to find a different way of collectively determining social priorities and projects.

We can look around the world at other examples, that are exciting. That are interesting.  Hell, Tunisia – which two months ago didn’t have a democracy – is now “freer than the United States.” Perhaps we can look there.

And we can reclaim politics from the politicians. From the parties.

And make it ours again.

crazy sign time / election time

the legislature -- alternatively, the house of evilTomorrow, Gordon Campbell will venture through suburban Victoria to Government House, a lovely plot of land with a garden, and will recommend to the Lieutenant-Governor that the legislative assembly be disolved and writs of election be issued for the province.

The most immediate impact to you and me? Tons and tons of signs will soon occupy every conceivable green space in your local neighbourhood, covered in bright colours, and you may well have people going door to door telling you that you should vote a certain way.  Television channels will be overrun with commercials telling you that Gordon Campbell wants to kill your grandmother, or that the NDP are so inept with finances that they couldn’t be trusted to run a popsicle stand.

Electoral politics is lovely.  I’m not actually going to wade, too deep, into the BC NDP/BC Liberal election fight, other than to simply state that I don’t think that re-electing Gordon Campbell and his merry band of neoliberal buccaneers would be the best thing that the electorate could do.  There are a number of reasons for this, of course.  At the same time, I don’t immediately believe that an election of the provincial incarnation of the NDP will lead immediately to sunshine, rainbows, lollipops, and unicorns.  No, it certainly won’t, but the Liberals are certainly not the best choice of a route to such promised lands anyways.

I will, of course, get to the prognostication on the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics in a few paragraphs, but there is actually something important that is being voted on — that is, the proposal to change the electoral system that we use to translate the single ‘x’ that you place on a ballot next to the name of the least offensive candidate to another system entirely.

This is important, and I hope you take the time to educate yourselves on the BC-STV proposal, and then vote in favour of it. Jasmin wrote an excellent note earlier about the BC-STV proposal, and indicated in it the philosophical problems that people who are of a more anarchic bent (myself included, perchance)  have when it comes to voting in the governmental elections (I think Subcommandante Marcos said it best when he explained that voting “simply legitimises a system premied upon exclusion”) but there are several reasons why you should actually take the time to understand what’s going on.

So let’s all learn a little bit.  Right now, we have an electoral system called ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) or ‘single member plurality.’ Currently, you mark an ‘X’ next to the name of the candidate that you’ve decided to vote for, or, in my case, find least offensive.  Then the votes are all counted and the person who receives the most votes, not necessarily a majority, wins the one and only seat up for grabs in your riding.  Theoretically, this could (and often has, in practice) mean that the person designated the ‘winner’ in your riding could actually have received less than a majority of the votes.  In cases like this, I would argue that the system has failed; the majority of people are not represented (politically) by the ‘representative’ elected.

This is why a new electoral system was discussed by a Citizen’s Assembly, and why the proposal to change voting systems to something called the British Columbia Single Transferable Vote (hence BC-STV) was proposed.  In 2005, the proposal won 58% of the vote in the province, and a majority in all but 2 of the 79 ridings, but was not implemented because a 60% threshold was imposed. (there’s a side argument here about a minority of voters ensuring that a minority of voters are actualy represented, but back to the main fare).

BC-STV is different than FPTP in that you don’t just mark a single ‘X’ next to your preferred/least odious candidate.  Instead, there’s a list of candidates, and you get to rank them, as in you write down a 1, 2, 3 next to the candidates in the order that you would prefer.  This allows you to mark a first choice, and a second choice, and so on.  Ridings are also no longer represented by a single member — they’re bigger, and have multiple members.  When the elections are run and votes are counted, there’s a bit of math involved, but your vote can be counted for the person that you voted for but also for your second choice and so on, providing a bit more ‘proportionality’ in the system.

Proportionality is important.  Given that there’s every possibility that an MLA could be elected without a majority of support in a riding, there’s every possibility that a government could be elected without a majority of support in the province, country, etc.  And it happens.  It happened to the NDP in 1996, where they won the most seats with fewer votes, and it’s happening right now federally with a Conservative government that only 36% or something of Canadians voted for. BC-STV aims to change that a bit, bringing in other parties to the legislature.  You may well see that when the referendum is passed, we could have Green Party MLAs and the like in the next round of voting. An additional benefit is that the seats are supposed to roughly correspond to the parties’ votes — ie, if Party A gets 30% of the votes in the election, they ought to get about 30% of the seats.

This has the potential of opening the system up to more parties that could be peoples’ second choices, and may allow a viable ‘alternative’ to the BC Liberals and NDP to form.  And that means that the system could change, ever so slightly, from one premised on exclusion to one that is at least less biased against inclusion.  Which is why we all should vote in favour of it.

Continue reading